Acculturation, Not Socialization, for African American Females in the STEM Fields

by Joretta Joseph
The National Physical Science Consortium

Sociological Research Online, 19 (2) 8

Received: 23 Apr 2013     Accepted: 18 Feb 2014    Published: 31 May 2014


This article takes a brief look at the manner in which African American females in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have been studied over the years. Noting that this group faces challenges due to gender and race, research has not always presented their struggles and successes from both a sociological and psychological view. Socialization theory has yielded a great deal of information despite the socialization process being driven by those in charge of the structure by which a person progresses through the STEM fields. Acculturation theory provides a glimpse of how African American females in these aforementioned fields progress from their perspective. Acculturation framework is of value because it parallels the emotional, cognitive, and behavior patterns students take as they progress through graduate school in order to become colleagues of the very professors that taught them. The framework considers the effects of the person's previous background and experiences, their coping skills and tactics, which are important to the success of African American females. Another common dynamic across the theory of acculturation and the experiences of these women is choice and the freedom to choose their own acculturation patterns.

Keywords: African American Females, Women of Color, Acculturation, Sociology, Socialization, Psychology, STEM


1.1 In 1976 The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science report was born out of a conference of thirty women of color (Native American, African American, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican) at a Minority Women Scientists Conference in December of 1975 (Malcom, Hall, & Brown 1976). By sharing their experiences from their pre-collegiate, academic, and professional journeys they exposed their resilience and commitment to being the best that they can be. They also wanted to ensure that other women of color could 'have a better chance in science' (Malcom et al. 1976: 39). This particular report is the first to observe and discuss obstacles that women of color, who are at the 'intersection of race and gender' (Johnson 2011; Settles 2006; Wang & Raber 2009), come up against in the sciences, then and now.

1.2 The research, in 1976 and today that does deal with how women of color move along in graduate school tend to be coupled with either women or minorities, and at times both. Although it may be disingenuous it does ultimately provide beneficial insight into experiences of underrepresented students (Malcom et al. 1976). For example, Turner and Thompson's 1993 research explores the socialization process of 37 minority women doctoral students and 25 majority women doctoral students. The results of this study were that the minority students had fewer professional socialization opportunities, while the social environment was richer for majority students, and more majority students had greater mentoring and apprenticeship experiences. Ellis (2001) interviewed 67 minority persons. The purpose of the interviews was to explore the concepts and factors that impact doctoral study. The results were that a good relationship with one's mentor or advisor was critical. This relationship influenced both their social and academic integration and their satisfaction with their doctoral program. In 2002 and 2004 Abbe Herzig explores the progression of minority and female doctorate students in math programs. Herzig expands Tinto's (1993) theory, which states that by including the influence of participation the student's progression through a doctorate program is reflective of the specific field of study and what is considered normal, acceptable performance, and behavior that is germane to that particular field. In her research about female and minority doctoral students in mathematics she developed a persistence framework for such doctoral students. Herzig also maintains that as doctoral students participate in a community of practice (academically and socially) they are more likely to become integrated into the community and persist to degree completion.

1.3 As presented above, women and minorities are often treated as a homogeneous group with parallel perceptions and experiences (Litzler, Mody-Pan, and Brainard 2011). This perception marginalizes race and ethnicity by minimizing the experiences of women of color that are based on both race and gender (Lizter, Mody-Pan, & Brainard 2011; Malcom, Hall, & Brown 1976; Johnson 2011; Settles 2006). Research that is about transforming the underrepresentation of women of color in the STEM fields should consider both the differences in the experiences of women of color and the racial privilege for white women (Johnson 2011, p.75). The intersection of gender and race is more than a theoretical concept. For African American women it is both race and gender shape their attitudes and identity (Patterson, Cameron, & Lalonde 1996; Settles 2006).

1.4 This article is a small part of a larger study that deal with the transition of African American Females in math and chemistry from Historically Black College and University (HBCU) undergraduate institutions to majority institutions for graduate school. The purpose of this study is to provide a brief look and comparison of the theory of acculturation and the theory of socialization. The theory of acculturation is both a psychological and sociological snapshot that allows for the use of culture as a contextual element that actually exists as part of an individual whose perceptions are based on their racial and gender identities. This is particularly important when a case study methodology is used to study marginalized groups that may face difficulties that are based on both race and gender and their maturation in a culture that is controlled by a dominant culture when it may be difficult to separate the independent effects of race and gender (Settles 2006:590).

1.5 Well-intended inclusive research, like those mentioned above, that focus on the factors of socialization, is accommodative but they do not bring about transformative change (Patterson, Cameron, & Lalonde 1996:236). This is of particular importance since women of color pursuing careers in the STEM fields are going against societal norms. Despite the many contribution that women of color have made to the STEM fields, the STEM culture is characterized as insular, masculine, and white male dominated. This culture has a habit of not extending beyond race and gender and associate success with those that think and look like the people that are at the forefront of their individual subject matter (Joseph 2007:197-198)

1.6 For African American female students it is the effects of this process of socialization; how new skills, beliefs, patterns of action, and at times, personal identities are acquired by people as they move into a new setting (Van Maanen 1983), that determines their success as a scientist. This may be daunting for African American females since the culture of the STEM fields are characterized as white and predominantly male in the academia and the work place (Johnson 2011; Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, & Handelsman 2012; Turner & Thompson 1993). Under the conditions of isolation, lack of advisement, and just plan indifference, on the part of implied and inadvertent biases, which so many African American females face (Ellis 2001; Moss-Racusin et al. 2012), it takes a strong commitment, discipline, and a high cognitive level to acquire the skills in order for minority students to persist under these conditions (Hamilton 2001). This is particularly important since socialization is a never-ending process that shapes human interactions, behaviors, and attitudes (Antonacopuolou & Pesqueux 2010; Choi, Alexander, Kraut, & Levine 2010; 'socialization' 2004).


2.1 Socialization refers to people processing as one crosses organizational boundaries (Van Maanen 1978). The people processing of socialization is a three step process of acquiring the suitable behaviors of the role for a person that either joins a new organization or a new position in the old organization, of acquiring the needed skills and abilities to do what is expected of them, and amending to the organizations' cultural norms and values (Feldman 1981; socialization 2004; Van Maanen 1978). Typically, the socialization process is directed by those that are in charge, who may be the most interested (those that are dominant within the group) in perpetuating the historical and current social structure of behaviors and norms of the organization (Bloor & Dawson 1994; Van Maanen 1978; Bada 2003; Elwell 2003). This is particularly important because culture is an active participant in the make up of social structures (Bada 2003). Social structures, like socialization, is a phenomenon of human relation arrangements that determine one's place within society, determine what relationships are appropriate, and defines organizations' and individual function (Bada 2003; Elwell 2003;`Antonacopuolou & Pesqueux 2010; Choi, Alexander, Kraut, & Levine 2010; 'socialization' 2004).

2.2 Socialization consists of a multitude of relationships and experiences which may or may not have the same effect or be perceived of similarly by others with both similar or different backgrounds (Weidman, Twale, & Stein 2001). This sentiment is consistent with recent research that finds that both male and female faculty perceives women less worthy and less competent compared to a male student in being successful in the STEM fields (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012). In order to conquer the socialization process successfully in the STEM fields, which is built around a culture of masculinity, gender bias, and an intellectual hierarchy (Johnson 2012; Ladson-Billings 1997; Ong 2011) women of color need to be able to navigate the cultural context of their respective discipline and understand that their values and expectations are also influential in their achievements (Turner 2002). With this being said, culture, a powerful contextual influence (Schein 2010), lies at the intersection of success via socialization. For a person whose identity and cultural background is in conflict with that of their academic and professional goals (Boykin & Toms 1985; Ibarra 1996; Johnson 2012), culture and identity are often an afterthought in research about African American females, that uses the socialization theory, in the STEM fields (Johnson 2011;Leggon 2010; Feldman 1981).


3.1 Culture, a concept 'that describes the total body of belief, behavior, knowledge, sanction, values and goals that mark the way of life of any people' (Herskovits 1948 as cited in Kroeber & Kluckholm 1952). This refers to the learned 'complex whole' that is inclusive of artifacts, beliefs, art, and all other ways of life by a person as a part of the populace (Kluckholm & Kelly 1945 as cited in Kroeber & Kluckholm 1952: 44; Schein 1990) that are passed down from one set of contemporaries to another (Young 1934 as cited in Kroeber & Kluckholn 1952). Culture, a means of expression does not exist outside of society. It is an expression of identity that identifies certain cultures (Bada 2003). It is also evident that culture, and the consistency of that culture, is based on the stability of the group and the individuals of the group with which people identify (Schein 1990).

3.2 For African American female scientists, who are bicultural by nature (Boykin & Toms 1985), may identify with many groups (African American, women, and scientist), they may have both positive and negative attitudes toward that group (Settles 2006). The assessments of positive aspects of that group or groups are found in the contentment, pleasure, and cultural pride with that group(s) (Phinney 1990; Settles 2006). A sense of belonging to one group over another, which is crucial to a person being able to attain and retain a particular culture, can be described by the exclusion of and contrast one feels within another group. African American females who are not accepted by STEM community members and perceived to be lacking in confidence, skills, and abilities have fewer opportunities to build successful relationships with peers and faculty members that are so important to a person's persistence and overall experiences (Herzig 2004; Johnson 2011& 2012; Moss-Racusin, et al. 2012; Ong 2011).

3.3 Culture is collective (shared by everyone in the group) and perpetuating (continuously evolving with the introduction of new elements over time) (Schein 1990; White 1949 as cited in Kroeber & Kluckholn 1952). Like acculturation, a multitude of relationships and ideas (Murdock 1941 as cited in Kroeber & Kluckholn 1952), culture of the respective organization is not always grasped or accepted by those within the socialization process (Schein 1990). For individuals who are not able to understand the socialization process, which is influenced by the dominant group, it is usually because, there is a cultural conflict, they have a completely different perception of the organization cultural, and they may not be willing to accept the values and behaviors of the dominant culture (Bloor & Dawson 1994; Schein 1990). On the other side, the socialization process can result in loyal people dedicated to the organization and its culture all of which are a consequence of both the cultural and societal factors of the group and its individuals (Feldman 1981; Schein 1990).

Why Acculturation?

4.1 Cultural and societal factors need to be addressed when one is studying the abilities and representation of African American females in the STEM fields (Hennessey, Hockfield, & Tilghman 2005). Acculturation theory is appropriate for studying African American females in the STEM fields because of the intersection of race and gender (Leggon 2010; Litzler, Mody-Pan, & Brainard 2011; Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield 2011). For African American women that face racial, gender, and bias of both that situates them in a position to experience oppression from multiple systems (Grant 2012; Litzler et al. 2011; Ong 2011; Ong et al. 2011). Acculturation theory provides a sociological and psychological snapshot of the process that one goes through in order to understand, as well as, deal with and within the reality of the organizational culture of their respective chosen STEM field.

4.2 Acculturation, which is rooted in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and psychology, has been studied for decades. The acculturation process is appropriate when studying African American females because it presents the identity changes and developmental choices students from non-dominant cultures face when they interact with the dominant culture of both the chosen school and field of study. The acculturation process should also be selected because African American females may have to choose between the dominant culture and their culture of origin, which places additional stress on African American females as they transition to becoming scientists (Torres, Howard-Hamilton, & Cooper 2003).

Defining Acculturation

4.3 Plato argued that humans have a predisposition to imitate strangers as they travel which result in new cultural practices (Plato 1892 as cited in Rudmin 2003). Plato urged that this behavior pattern (cultural contamination) should be minimized (Plato 1892 as cited in Rudmin 2003), but not to the point of cultural isolation (Rudmin 2003). The classical definition of acculturation 'comprehends those phenomena that result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups' (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits 1936). Typically, acculturation occurs in one of two ways: first, where elements of culture may be forced upon a group of people (imposed); or when cultural elements are voluntarily received (blindly or democratically). Acculturation may also transpire when social, economic, and political inequities exist (or are perceived to exist) between groups of people (Redfield et al. 1936). Since cultures do not exist without human interaction, acculturation is the process of change as experienced by individuals (Gillin & Raimy 1940).

4.4 Acculturation models describe the process as linear, two-dimensional, and multidimensional. One side of the continuum encompassing the dimensions of acculturation is assimilation, where the acculturation process is a total loss of an individual's identification with his/her traditional culture and absorption of the dominant culture. The other side of that continuum is rejection of the dominant culture, (if voluntary), or segregation, which involves a separation of the dominant culture (Berry 2003).

4.5 Linear models describe the acculturation process as the absorption at both the group and individual levels of the dominant/host culture with which the other individuals are in contact (Castro 2003). These models are simplistic in that they assume that a stronger mainstream or dominant identification requires individuals to weaken and eventually dismiss their ethnic/cultural identification and make room for entirely new values, attitudes and behaviors (Torres et al. 2003). With no room for the existence of two cultures the linear model provides an incomplete and fragmented measure of the multifaceted cultural process (Cabassa 2003). The unidirectional process can be determined by an individual's change in values, cultural patterns of the host society, interactions and societal networks of groups and institutions within the dominant culture, marital assimilation (interracial marriages), self-identification with the main culture, and attitude/behavior assimilation (Castro 2003; Teske & Nelson 1974).

4.6 When there is consideration given to the effect that the underrepresented group's culture has on the dominant culture, both simultaneously and independently, there is a two-way dimensional acculturation relationship (Torres 1999). Since these dimensions are independent, the adaptation to the host/dominant culture does not require the reduction of any aspect of the culture of origin (Arends-Toth & van de Vijer 2004; Berry 1997b; Flannery, Reise, & Yu 2001; Phinney 1990). The continuous contact in the given definition of acculturation, implies an interchange between both groups, thus a bi-directional process (Teske & Nelson 1974; Torres et al. 2003). A bicultural model also assumes that as individuals spent more time within the host culture, they adapt to the new culture while retaining their original cultural ties. This model also depends on the uniqueness of the community of reference and their degree of support (Castro 2003). The variables that are most influential in this kind of model are the community and degree of support of the original culture. Based on this, a bicultural model may lead to the following relationships between the two dimensions: 1) High Cultural Involvement and Bicultural 2) High Cultural Involvement and Monoculture, 3) Marginal and Monoculture, and 4) Marginality and Bicultural (Szapocznik & Kurtines 1980; Torres 1999).

4.7 The multi-dimensional model is more specific in that every cultural trait varies and is evaluated independently on a continuum as a trait to be accepted or rejected (Torres et al. 2003) without discussion of the interaction among those traits (Torres 1999). As acculturation research has and continues to evolve, we understand that the process, whether smooth or rocky, and the pace of acculturation is dependent on certain social characteristics. The process of acculturation requires contact between two independent cultural groups. This assumes that one group dominates the other group and that there must be change in one or both of the groups as a result of the contact. Such domination of one group over another suggests that there is a difficult, reactive conflict rather than a smooth transition (Berry 1980).

Acculturation for African American Females

4.8 A bicultural acculturation model used to study African American females may lead to an acceptance and adaptation of new cultural patterns or traits while they are also retaining aspects of their previous culture as they transition to scientist in the STEM fields where African American females are still considered new comers. Research shows that a person without a sense of self, and who feels rejected by others is exposed to considerable psychological costs in their own communities. This also imposes costs on the dominant society. Members of the non-dominant community that do not understand and accept the core values and norms of the society of settlement may irritate members of the larger community. Managing both cultures is dependent on both the person's acceptance as a contemporary fact of life and a willingness to change as well as the dominant culture's acceptance of the other person (Berry 1997a). As previously mentioned, a psychological and sociological 'snapshot' will be provided of the individuals because it examines feelings, behaviors, attitudes, and values and not just events and activities throughout time and space (Anderson & Jack 1991) by discussing multiple factors of being acclimatized with the characteristics of both the acculturating person and the acculturation situation being described (Ward 1996).

A Model of the Acculturation Process (Ward 1996)

4.9 The presentation of acculturation in this manner is different from past acculturation research. Past research has been largely interpreted within a stress and coping framework and where social cognition approaches have not been well developed and examined as ends in themselves, but in relations to larger patterns of adaptation (Ward 1996). Also, many researchers consider acculturation as a state where the definition and its measurement (Ward 1996) are the focus where researchers have only examined the psychological aspects and have not paid attention to the individual's development. When studied from a psychological aspect acculturation focuses on the person and his/her emotional well-being in terms of stress. When studied from a sociological aspect the concern is the acquisition of social skills and cultural learning (Ward & Kennedy 1999). However, transition and adaptation are both psychological and sociological (Pope-Davis et al. 2000). It is those psychological and social changes that encompass acculturation that individuals experience when they enter a new and different cultural environment (Cabassa 2003). Psychologically, acculturation looks at a person's satisfaction and sense of well-being. Sociologically, it considers a person's ability to fit in and negotiate the aspects of the new culture (James, Hunsley, Navara, & Alles 2004). It is these aspects of acculturation that this study will explore: the ability to fit-in (behaviors) and the students' feelings of well-being and satisfaction (values).

4.10 Ward's (1996) acculturation model pertains to the ability to negotiate the interactive aspects of the new culture with the greatest point of adjustment difficulties being in the beginning (Ward & Rana-Deuba 1999). In this model acculturation is a process with emphasis placed on emotional well-being, which is effected by life changes, coping styles, and social support and behavior competence, which is in-turn influenced by cultural learning and the acquisition of social skills (Ward & Kennedy 1999). This model also facilitates the development and research of acculturation theory by offering a basic distinction of psychological and sociocultural adjustment, by presenting a combination of personal and situational, cultural and noncultural, individual and societal level variables with descriptions of their roles and interactions (Ward 1996).

4.11 This model aids in the understanding that the behaviors of the students within the acculturation process are dependent upon the attitudes they have in regards to the four-acculturation strategies: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization. This model accomplishes this by presenting a complete grasp of the internal and external aspects of the "phenomena, which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups" (Redfield et al. 1936). Like this definition, the model considers culture contact as a major life event (Berry 1997b; Ward 1996). This life event can place a burden on the person(s) involved. Such a load stems from the experience of having to negotiate and participate to some extent in the two cultures in contact. Next the person considers the meaning of their experiences and evaluates them for difficulty, opportunities, or as neutral. It is the evaluation process that will determine the need for behavioral shifts. Some conflict may occur where some adjustment and adaptive changes may be needed in order for the person to fit into the dominant culture (Berry 1997b).

4.12 This perspective is particularly important to African American females since issues of diversity are prominent for them in the STEM fields. Cultural predispositions may arise when women of color face cultural conflicts. Discord arises for many students of color that enter PWIs. The reason for this is not always due to incidents of racial discrimination but it may be a result of cultural conflict. Robert Ibarra (1996) argues that women and students of color tend to be very personal and specific, highly emotional and group oriented, which is the opposite of STEM culture. Socialization is closely related to integration. Women of color who succeed in maintaining their cultural identities while accepting the ways of their respective fields are successful by becoming 'cultural brokers' by attempting to blend the two cultures (Ibarra 1996; Tinto 1993; Young, Ekeler, Sawyer, & Prichard 1994) along with a strong sense of determination and personal drive (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012; Ong 2011)

4.13 The limitations of the theory of acculturation are what the community of practice literature considers as social learning systems. In brief, communities of practice are societal structures and organizations that are establishes and participates in social learning where competence and experience are crucial (Wenger 2000). This theory considers a two way dynamic that shapes a person, the structure or both via an interplay of a person's experience and social competence as the newcomer is pulled to align their experiences with what it means to be competent in their particular environment (Wenger 2000; Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002).


5.1 The acculturation framework, as presented, is an ongoing process, which can be lost when acculturation theory is used as an instrument of measurement (Berry 1997b; Cabassa 2003). This framework is of value because it parallels the emotional, cognitive, and behavior patterns students take as they progress through graduate school in order to become colleagues of the very professors that taught them. The framework considers the effects of the person's previous background and experiences, their coping skills and tactics, which are important to the success of African American females. This acculturation framework does all of this by providing a space for exploring the study participant's emotions, the manner in which they acquire knowledge by their use of reasoning, and behavioral changes as a consequence of their first hand contact with persons and engagement within a cultural structure that is different from that which they are familiar.

5.2 Identity, whether it is an integrated identity or a separated identity, is a salient factor in acculturation. It evolves and changes as a result of both developmental and contextual factors, which vary over time (Phinney, Horenczyk, Liebkind, & Vedder 2001). Individuals are not autonomous units of mental analysis. Their thoughts and behaviors are reflective of a membership in a collective group of influences. The notion of identity is twofold in that individuals have a need to be distinct and differentiated and simultaneously need to be affiliated and associated with a group (Padilla & Perez 2003). This is particularly important because a sense belonging to one group over another may be considered exclusion of one group and cause contrast of how one feels in another group. As a person attempts to proceed in unfamiliar territory they may be pressured to give up or compromise their sense of identity as the values and culture of the group may a person's personal preferences (Bada 2003). Pressure of this nature may result in depression, anger, low self-esteem, and at times violence due to varying degrees of social isolation (Bada 2003). In such an atmosphere where the positive self-image of a person may be deteriorating, one seeks to hold on to those favorable comparisons between an in-group and relevant out-group that allow the person to maintain a positive identity (Phinney et al. 2001).

5.3 As a person identifies with one group or many groups (African American, women, and scientist), they may have both positive and negative attitudes toward that group (Litzler et al. 2011; Phinney 1990; Settles 2006). The assessments of positive aspects of that group or groups are found in the contentment, pleasure, and cultural pride with that group(s) (Phinney 1990; Settles 2006). Also related to ethnic identity and a sense of belonging to a group is the process of enculturation. This process refers to conforming to the values, beliefs, and behavioral standards of one's ethnic culture. Coupled with acculturation, a sense of belonging assists in the understanding and perseverance of ethnic identity (Torres & Phelps 1997). The ability to stay connected to one's cultural heritage as well as the people and things that provide them internal strength and pride assists people if/when they are in difficult situations (Anderson & Jack 1991).

5.4 Another common dynamic across the theory of acculturation and the experiences of these women is choice and the freedom to choose their own acculturation patterns. Applying acculturation theory to the stories of African American females suggests that there were purposeful choices about the 'society of settlements' and the pathways that were selected in order to pursue their academic dreams. But the notion of free choices is challenged when people are forced or highly discouraged to take pathways that are selected for them without their input (Berry 1997b; Cabassa 2003). As the acculturation theory suggests, it is necessary to distinguish between those moderating factors that existed prior to the acculturation process taking place because the moderating factors that existed prior have an effect on those moderating factors that arise during the acculturation process. Both the pre-acculturation moderating factors and the moderating factors that arise during the acculturation process influence the course of adjustment for these women (Berry 1997b). Moderating factors, collectively and individually, also affect the coping strategies that these women applied. Moderating factors that link stressors and stress reactions can be viewed as both risk and protective factors.

Conclusion - A Final Remark

6.1 Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are areas thought of as 'facts', created by human beings (Leggon 2010), that hold a great deal of prestige in the hands of a few. Science and the relationship between gender, race, education and status are also complex. Those that are a part of the STEM fields have influence over the questions that are asked, framed, and how the evidence is collected (Leggon 2010; Leggon & Pearson 1995). It is not enough for African American females to increase their education, in turn, their professional status (Fox 2001). It is also necessary for those that perpetuate the culture of the STEM fields to understand the varied positions of African American females according to the condition of their lives and cultural backgrounds (Beoku-Betts 2004). Conflict may come about when more than one culture is a part of the same social structure as a result of cultural conflict and tension generated frustration (Bada 2003).

6.2 African American females that succeed academically and professionally in the STEM fields do so with a great deal of goal commitment and determination and forge ahead in spite of obstacles that they may face (Grant 2012; Litzler 2011; Moss-Racusin et al. 2012; Ong 2011; Schwartz, Bower, Rice, & Washington 2003). Per the limited amount of available literature regarding the experiences of African American females in the STEM fields, the socialization process is a contributing factor to the loss of human capital in the STEM fields. Such a loss in human capital effects the production of scientific knowledge that African American women have to offer (Ferreira 2002; Leggon 2010; Litzler 2011; Ong 2011).


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